Donna Van Straten Remmert
||Donna Van Straten Remmert is the author of The Littlest Big Kid and The Jitterbug Girl. She is a long-time member of the Story Circle Network and past president of the Austin chapter. Her professional background includes teaching high school English and working as a journalist. For more than twenty years, she has pursued an informal study of Jungian psychology, especially as it relates to dreams. The hysterically funny third installment of her memoir, Head Over Heels: Stories about the 1950s, describes her transition from small town Catholic party girl to campus co-ed at UW-Madison. She and her husband live in Boulder, CO. Lisa Shirah-Hiers interviewed her via email for the Story Circle Journal.
Read Lisa Shirah-Hiers's review of Head Over Heels for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers
Posted on 09/06/2012
How do you get your stories/memories out of your head and onto paper? How do you organize them and when?
My process is quite random. When a memory pops into my head, I scribble it on a piece of paper, let the story marinate for a while, and then I start banging it out. I'm always amazed how one small memory triggers another and another until there's a story that actually has a purpose. When I have several that are somewhat complete, I decide where they belong in the book and how they need to expand in order to reflect the era. I also add details about political or cultural events, clothes, hairstyles, movies or book titles. I could save myself a lot of time by outlining, but it's just not in my nature to do so. I usually share a rough draft of each story with my writing circle and ask them to help me decide how to improve it and if it serves a purpose within the book. This kind of support is such a great motivator, and for an extravert like me it makes the writing process less lonely.
What were some of the challenges you faced in writing your memoirs? How did you overcome them?
I didn't want to offend people I wrote about, and I wanted my stories to have pizzazz and reflect the culture as much as tell my own story. When I wrote The Littlest Big Kid and The Jitterbug Girl, I used last names and got signed permission slips from everyone. I was amazed at how few objections I experienced; they understood my humor and liked having their names mentioned. The "kid" voice I'd used in my first two memoirs had been such fun to remember and such a part of my humor yet inappropriate for Head Over Heels. My greatest challenge for this memoir was to find a voice that would be equally entertaining and also sound like the college student I remember myself being. Another challenge was to write the truth but limit the characters mentioned, so my reader could make sense of the story being told. My solution was to use only first names most of the time, allowing me to create composite characters. In my disclaimer, I explain that while everything I wrote about actually did happen, I've granted myself the freedom to invent characters when necessary, create dialogue that is representative, and amplify and embellish scenes when necessary for clarity and entertainment. My memoir is, therefore, creative nonfiction. I think it's more fun to read and more representative of the era than if I had stuck too rigidly to the facts. Giving myself this freedom helped me express more truth about how things were in the late 1950s.
Initially your father and mother were reluctant to let you go to college. Your mother was worried you'd lapse from your Catholic faith and your father that you'd be tricked by communists into signing something incriminating. You even had to forge your father's signature on your application!
It wasn't only my parents who didn't encourage me. My teachers also never suggested I go to college. I was a girl, and my intellectual capabilities seemed mediocre at best. I was encouraged to become a secretary for the short time period before I'd most likely get married and start having babies. My wacky personality didn't help much. And my dad was right about my gullibility; communists almost got me to sign something incriminating. It's one of my favorite stories in Head Over Heels. Looking back I'm quite sure I had a learning disability of some kind, but no one diagnosed those when I was a kid in the 1940s, nor did anyone offer special help for kids struggling to learn. My self-esteem didn't suffer that much since I was nevertheless loved, treated equally, allowed freedom, and was cute. Back then, cute counted for a whole lot more than now. Girls often wanted that label more than the smart one, strange as it seems. I think I was motivated to try being a college student because I thought this was where I'd have the most fun and meet the right kind of guy to marry. I know how shallow this sounds in today's world; even then it was something girls were reluctant to admit. But that's how I was conditioned to think, having grown up in rural Wisconsin without much exposure to the rest of the world. People back then joked about girls going to college to get their MRS degree, but for many, including myself, it was true. While in college, I gradually woke up to my own ambitions to achieve and become more than just an appendage to "the man of my dreams."
You did some pretty daring things in your college years: getting drunk at a frat house full of horny pre-med males, touring Rome on the back of a motorbike with a policeman you'd just met, traveling with an older German Baron and fending off his advances. Were your father and mother's objections to your going to college valid?
I'm laughing! Daring things? Yes, I did a few, but compare what I did to what young unmarried women are doing today! I think my 1950-style wildness was helpful to my development. It provided the adventure I craved, and it helped me discover what my values were through trial and error rather than by just listening to adult authorities. I actually did my wild things safely because I had boundaries, thanks to my family, community and religion. In Head Over Heels, I argued about the religious and societal rules that made no sense, but I rarely broke them. In addition, I always knew that I had to be responsible for my actions, and there was no rich daddy in my life to pick up the pieces and pay for my mistakes. Growing up poor has this advantage. My parents had reason to worry about me leaving home and going to college. They saw my vulnerabilities, and they knew I wasn't a serious student. Their skepticism helped in that I was determined to prove them wrong.
In your book you describe clothing in some detail. How does the clothing we wear define us in our own and other's eyes? How can clothing details enhance a memoir?
I use clothing details to describe my characters. personalities and their economic status, to evoke the era and show how few belongings most college kids had in the 50s compared to now. My favorite fashion statement belonging to the 1950's is the spiral-stitched Maidenform bras we wore to push our breasts out to a peak, like the movie-star paper dolls we'd played with as kids. And the girdles that even skinny girls wore to eliminate the jiggling. No wonder the flower children of the 60s rebelled! How we look and what we wear contributes to our persona just like how we smile or frown. When I went to college, everything I owned fit into only three feet of hanging space, the shelf above it, and two dresser drawers. Later I'll admit I splurged on clothes a bit too often, rationalizing that it was "artistic expression." Now that I'm an elder and living in Boulder, I shop less and am content to have less, but I still think attire is an important way to show the identity you wish to project to the world.
What are some other techniques you used to set the scene, reveal character, themes etc.?
When I read books, lengthy scene descriptions bother me, and I keep wishing the author would just get to the point since I can create a satisfactory picture of the setting from only a few well-chosen words. An exception is when a scene description shows the era, like the one of my family's kitchen. Otherwise I don't see the point of lengthy descriptions of, for instance, a scene in nature. This is my bias, and other readers must love those long descriptions because they're so often in award-winning books. I think the point of the stories in my memoirs is more about what people are saying and doing, not what the sky looked like. I used a lot of dialogue to show the personalities of my characters because I think this is the best way to "show not tell" the story, and because I love using words that belong to the era. I love slang; it's got pizzazz and it's funny.
You self-published all three of your memoirs. Can you speak about that process?
The new catch phrase for someone who self-publishes is "indie," short for independent. Words matter, so that's what I am—an indie; and from what I can tell, the process is far easier, less stressful, and much more fun than trying to find and then satisfy agents and publishers by laboring over one re-write after another, until your book starts to feel like it isn't yours anymore. That's my bias because that's what I've witnessed from a few women in my writing circle. I haven't sent proposals to agents and engaged in that process at all, but how would I respond if an agent or publisher approached me? I think every writer fantasizes that this could happen. It's hard to say how I would respond. My book was edited by SCN friends and by my siblings who did an advance read. My dear sister, Joan, is a former English teacher who published her own book a few years ago. She read my final draft three times to catch typos, punctuation errors, and tense mistakes. I printed with Morgan Printing in Austin, TX (now called Ginny's Printing) twice before, and because I love and trust my contact person, Terry Sherrell, that's what I've done again. The marketing of my book will, of course, be up to me. I'm told that that's true when publishing with a small press as well.
Can you talk about your decision to publish an eversion via Amazon Kindle?
I like reading e-books but felt an initial disappointment when I saw my own on my Kindle. My paperbacks look and feel so much better. However, e-books are inexpensive to publish, the market is extremely broad and the shelf life is forever. I'm not very computer savvy, so I paid someone to do the conversion. Then, since I'd ventured this far, I decided to pay for a website design. As you may have guessed by this time, I didn't publish under the assumption that I'd make money, but based upon the experience of publishing my first two books, I expect to at least break even with both my paperback and my Kindle edition.
Why do you write memoir?
Life review is a Jungian concept that I seem to do automatically, through refection and more specifically through dream work. That's in-depth and solitary work, but since I was born with what's called "the happy gene," I felt compelled to put this work to another use by writing happy books about the value of having had a wholesome and ordinary upbringing. Returning to my roots through writing memoir has helped me remember who I really am and take pride in knowing that my life has been well lived. Reflecting on my childhood and young adult experiences has also served as an escape. Today's world is not an easy one to comprehend or tolerate, especially as an elder. When I am experiencing sadness, disappointment, or crisis within my family, I find relief in writing about a time when everything was less complicated. It's a better way to relax than popping a pill, isn't it?
For more information on the author and her books visit Donna's website.